It takes a lot of courage to be a martyr, and Martin Luther was as courageous as any martyr who ever lived—or more correctly, who ever died. However, even though Luther didn’t die a martyr, he was willing to.
Luther’s convictions weren’t merely theological. They were profoundly spiritual. In his early life he was plagued with doubts about his relationship with God, and he finally decided to become an Augustinian monk. But this only made matters worse. He fasted and beat himself with whips and did all kinds of penance, but nothing relieved his mental and spiritual agony. That is, until he discovered Romans 1:17. Here, Luther read, “The just shall live by faith” (KJV).* He suddenly realized that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross paid for the sins of the whole world (see John 3:16) and acceptance by God depended on simply believing this to be true.
No more fastings and whippings to pay for his sins! Jesus paid for them on the cross. This understanding brought tremendous relief to Luther’s tortured mind. It was a profound turning point in his spiritual experience. Unfortunately, it also brought him into direct conflict with his Catholic Church.
Challenging the church
Luther’s confrontation with the church began over his strong disagreement with the sale of “indulgences.” An indulgence was a document a person could obtain, usually through the payment of a fee, that would atone partially or entirely for one’s sins, and thus shorten the time he or she had to spend in purgatory. In 1517 the church commissioned a friar by the name of Johann Tetzel to sell these indulgences in some of the cities in Germany, and he said that they even included absolution from future sins still to be committed! This claim was a direct challenge to Luther’s conviction that no monetary payment could be made for one’s sins. Salvation is attained through trusting in Christ’s payment for our sins.
By this time Luther was a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, and wanting to start a discussion among the theology faculty, he prepared a document giving 95 reasons why the Catholic doctrine of indulgences was wrong. Then he nailed his document to the church door in Wittenberg.
These “95 theses,” as they are called, were written in Latin. However, someone translated them into the German language, and within two weeks they had been printed and circulated all over Germany. Within two months they had been translated into other languages and circulated all across Europe. Suddenly Martin Luther was a household name on everyone’s lips!
Thus began Luther’s long career as a prolific author. At the time he wrote his 95 theses, there was one small printer in Wittenberg, but by the time of his death, there were five large ones, all of them primarily devoted to publishing his works—and he blessed them with plenty of work!
Martin Luther transformed Europe’s religious life, and in the long run the religious life of Christians all over the world.
So here’s the question: Was Martin Luther a prophet? I will answer this question by examining what the Old and New Testaments say about prophets and the gift of prophecy.
Prophets in the Old Testament
Several men in the Old Testament brought about major revivals in the religious life of the Israelite people. First, I’ll mention Samuel. Before Samuel’s time, the nation had rocked back and forth between loyalty to God and apostasy. The people would fall into idol worship, whereupon God would allow foreign nations to oppress them until they cried out to Him, and He would raise up a judge who would deliver them from their foreign overlords. The last of these judges was Samuel, who anointed both Saul and David as kings over Israel, bringing an end to the period of the judges.
So was Samuel a prophet? He wrote two books in the Bible (1 and 2 Samuel), and Acts 13:20 refers to him as “Samuel the prophet,” so the answer is yes. Samuel was a prophet.
However, the Bible mentions a number of other prophets who never wrote a book that is included in the Bible. Nathan, who rebuked King David for his affair with Bathsheba, is referred to 15 times in the Bible as “Nathan the prophet.”
Then there’s Elijah, whom God used to reform (or to try to reform) the Northern Kingdom of Israel. While he also never wrote a book that is included in the Bible, he confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, and God honored his courage by sending down fire from heaven and consuming his sacrifice in the presence of a large gathering of Israelite people. Elijah never wrote a book of the Bible, but was he a prophet? First Kings 18:36 refers to him as “the prophet Elijah,” so we can say with confidence that Elijah was a prophet.
The same is true of Elijah’s successor, Elisha, who also never wrote a book that is included in the Bible. However, Jesus referred to him as “Elisha the prophet” (Luke 4:27), so again, we can say with confidence that Elisha was a prophet.
Then there’s Obadiah, a faithful servant of the true God who was in charge of wicked King Ahab’s palace. He was not a prophet, but 1 Kings 18:3, 4 tells us that Obadiah hid 100 prophets of God in caves to protect them from the wrath of the wicked Queen Jezebel. And nine times in the story of Elisha a reference is made to “the sons of the prophets” (KJV) or “the company of the prophets” (NIV).
Prophets in the New Testament
Two of the most prominent New Testament individuals whom we think of as prophets are John and Paul. John wrote the prophetic book of Revelation, which clearly makes him a prophet, and Paul wrote 13 books in the New Testament, so it’s certainly appropriate to consider him a prophet, even though the Bible never attributes that title to him.
Paul spoke of prophecy as one of the most important gifts of the Holy Spirit. In Romans 12:6–8 he mentions the gift of prophecy right along with the gifts of giving, teaching, serving, and others, and in Ephesians 4:11 he mentions prophets along with apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. And the purpose of each of these gifts is to build up the body of Christ so that God’s people can become mature Christians (verses 12, 13).
We find a significant insight into Paul’s understanding of the prophetic gift in some advice that he gave to the Christians in Corinth. Apparently, some of them were misusing the gift of tongues. Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:5). Notice that Paul wished that every member of the congregation in Corinth could exercise the gift of prophecy! And in his instructions about how to carry out an orderly worship service, he said, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop” (verses 29, 30). In this sense, the gift of prophecy consists simply of inspiring thoughts that come to Christians in a group discussion.
What is a prophet?
So was Martin Luther a prophet? To answer that question, we must first define what we mean by the word prophet. The simplest definition is that a prophet is someone who speaks to God’s people on His behalf. This definition would certainly be true of each of the individuals I mentioned earlier—Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, John, and Paul. We also have to include in our definition the 100 prophets that Obadiah hid in caves to protect them from the wrath of Jezebel, and we have to include the “company of the prophets” who served during Elisha’s ministry. Furthermore, we have to include the people in the church in Corinth who Paul said exercised the gift of prophecy.
This almost sounds like anyone can be a prophet! And that’s true, but we have to distinguish between various levels of the prophetic gift.
Let’s begin with the lowest level. In Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth, he said that “if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.” Now put this with something Jesus said during His last meeting with His disciples before His crucifixion. He told them that “when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). This promise is for every Christian. The Holy Spirit is anxious to guide each of us in our understanding of the Bible, especially God’s plan of salvation, and He does this by impressing our minds.
So when Paul advised the Christians in Corinth how to relate to a prophet who received a “revelation” during a church meeting, he was simply referring to someone during a group Bible study whom the Holy Spirit impressed with significant spiritual insight.
A higher level of the gift of prophecy would be someone who is officially designated by the church as a minister or pastor. When a pastor delivers a sermon in church, he is exercising the gift of prophecy.
The next level is the person who speaks to God’s people with His authority, as though God Himself had spoken. Nathan the prophet exercised this level of the prophetic gift when he rebuked King David for his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. Christians consider all of the Bible writers to have spoken and written with this level of authority. But this level of the prophetic gift is a much higher than that of the person in a Christian small group who receives a sudden spiritual insight.
was Martin Luther a prophet?
So we return to the question, Was Martin Luther a prophet? The answer is absolutely, yes. However, we have to be careful how we define the word prophet in his case.
Some of the Old Testament prophets, such as the 100 that Obadiah hid in caves, we would probably think of as ministers, or pastors, today. Luther was certainly a prophet in that sense. He certainly had the Holy Spirit’s guidance in the things he taught, and there can be no question that God raised him up to carry out a very special work for Him at a critical time in Christian history. In that sense, he was every inch a prophet.
However, I think nearly all Christians would agree that Luther’s prophetic gift was not the same as that of the biblical writers, who spoke and wrote with God’s authority.
* Bible verses marked KJV are from the King James Version.